Review: HP Mini 5101

Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying that netbooks are a trend to be reckoned with. In fact, these compact, affordable computing and communications companions could account for 17 percent of total notebook unit volume in 2009, according to market-research firm Displaybank, up from 11 percent in 2008.

Of course, the vast majority of netbooks released to date have been aimed at consumer buyers, with designs tailored to the fickle fashionista crowd and an unspoken understanding that once the novelty wore off the machines would be relegated to a drawer like last year’s handbag. HP is trying to change that perception with more serious netbook models aimed at business buyers, such as the HP Mini 2150 and its latest, the HP Mini 5101.

Business-minded Design

While most netbooks sport a candy-colored plastic shell, the Mini 5101 is wrapped in magnesium alloy and aluminum to increase its durability while also keeping its weight down to a scant 2.6 pounds. The black anodized aluminum lid looks sophisticated, so you won’t feel like you’re pulling out a toy at a business meeting, and the aqua LEDs lend to the upscale feel.

Also enhancing durability are the machine’s spill-resistant keyboard and the active protection for its hard drive. Dubbed HP 3D DriveGuard, the feature helps safeguard your data by relying on a three-axis digital accelerometer chip that acts as a motion sensor. Should the chip sense a sudden movement or shock, it sends a command to temporarily park the hard-drive head to avoid contact with the drive platter and potential data loss.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at netbooks has been their cramped keyboards, and Mini 5101 goes a long way to correcting that: HP engineers squeezed in a keyboard that is 95 percent the size of a traditional laptop keyboard and larger even than the keyboards on some ultraportable laptops. Typing on the flat-top keys is fairly comfortable; although the keys don’t have the up-down travel and feel of a regular keyboard, the experience is better than on most other netbooks in the class.

The Mini 5101 also features HP DuraKeys: A clear coating applied over the keyboard helps to protect the finish and the printed characters. HP claims DuraKeys are 50 times more resistant to visible wear than keyboards without it. And interestingly, HP has reversed the primary and secondary actions initiated by the Function keys to make them more useful without adding dedicated buttons. So now volume, mute, screen brightness and other controls are the primary purpose of those keys, and if you want to activate F10, for example, you hold down the Function key and hit F10.

HP’s netbook features a 10.1-inch LCD screen with an LED backlight. Unlike the fluorescent tubes that provide the light for lower-end LCD panels, the white LEDs used here consume less power while also providing brighter, more even illumination. The screen on the Mini 5101 also delivers a higher contrast ratio and more saturated colors than the screens on cheaper netbooks. We noticed bright, vibrant colors in images and video displayed on the Mini 5101.

The HP Mini 5101 netbook
The HP Mini 5101 netbook features a 10.1-inch screen, nearly full-size keyboard and a sophisticated design that won’t be out of style in a year.

The screen’s 1024×768 resolution is typical for the class, and it means you’ll be able to see the entire width of most Web sites without scrolling side to side. Of course, as with all netbooks, the screen’s vertical dimension is a bit cramped, so you’ll be doing a lot of vertical scrolling. HP does offer a 1366×768 screen as an upgrade, though text at that high resolution on such a small panel would appear pretty small.

As for connectivity, the Mini 5101 comes with built-in Bluetooth as well as 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, allowing you to connect to wireless LANs at the highest possible speeds. Unlike most other netbooks, you can also configure the Mini 5101 with an optional EV-DO/HSPA mobile broadband module, so you can connect to the Internet at 3G speeds just about anywhere in the country without having to find Wi-Fi hotspot service.

Software and Hardware Extras

The Mini 5101 runs Microsoft Windows XP, and HP has also preloaded the Mini 5101 with a useful selection of software. Most notable is the Corel Home Office productivity suite. Home Office includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications, with a look and feel similar to Microsoft Office 2007.

More importantly, the Home Office apps can open and save-to Office 2007 files (.docx, .xlsx, .pptx), as well as older Microsoft Office formats and a range of other formats such as PDF. For working directly with PDFs, HP also bundles PDF Complete. You also get the HP Disk Sanitizer utility, which permanently destroys data on your hard drive when it’s time to retire the system.

Port selection on the Mini 5101 is typical for a netbook: three USB ports, VGA out for connecting to an external monitor or projector, and an SD/MMC memory card slot. As with other netbooks, you won’t find a PC Card or ExpressCard expansion slot; if your mobile work relies on such a peripheral, you’ll need to step up to a full-fledged laptop. The Mini 5101 does include a built-in Webcam for videoconferencing, video chat and so on. We found the camera delivered good image quality in bright light, with accurate colors; under dim light, the camera still managed to deliver a surprisingly usable image. 

Prices for the Mini 5101 start at a reasonable $399. All models are powered by a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280 processor and either 1GB or 2GB of RAM, depending on the configuration you choose. The standard hard drive is 160GB, though a 320GB drive is also available. You can also opt for either a 4-cell or 6-cell battery. HP claims the latter is good for up to nine hours of use between charges, and all models support HP Fast Charge, which recharges the primary battery up to 90 percent in just 90 minutes.

As with all netbooks to date, the Mini 5101 does not include a built-in CD/DVD drive, though HP offers a USB-powered external portable drive for $149.99. Other accessories available for the Mini 5101 include a port replicator ($69), a USB docking station ($139), USB-powered portable speakers ($39.99), a 250GB USB-powered external hard drive ($99.99), and a wireless travel mouse ($39.99). HP backs the machine with a one-year warranty.

As with other netbooks, the HP Mini 5101 won’t replace your primary PC. It doesn’t have the power for heavy lifting like image- or video-editing. But if you need a take-anywhere Web/e-mail companion that can also be used for light office duty and presentations, the Mini 5101 has all the power and features you’ll need along with a design appropriate for business.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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